Finally, some students return to New York City’s classrooms

By Eliza Shapiro

One principal in Brooklyn has pinned pink heart balloons to the school’s front door to welcome about 50 pre-K children who are expected to arrive for classes. Another principal in Washington Heights is expecting only five children to attend.

New York City’s roughly 1,400 school buildings have sat largely empty for six months, since its school system, the nation’s largest, abruptly shuttered classrooms in mid-March to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, for the first time since then, schools reopened for up to 90,000 pre-K students and children with advanced disabilities. The rest of the city’s 1.1 million students started the school year online and will have the option of returning to classrooms over the next few weeks.

Although Monday’s reopening falls far short of what Mayor Bill de Blasio originally promised — all students having the option to return to classrooms — it still marks a significant milestone in New York’s long path to fully reopening. New York is one of the few U.S. cities where some children are back in classrooms.

Still, the start of the school year here is freighted with anxiety and unknowns, starting with the fact that no one is quite sure how many students will show up to buildings Monday.

Some kindergarten students who reported to their schools Monday morning were sent away and told their return to classrooms would not be until later in the month.

For the children who can actually return to schools Monday, it will be an extremely unusual first day back.

“We’re all about the hugs, the sitting together, rolling around on the floor together,” Julie Zuckerman, principal of Public School 513 in Washington Heights, which has a pre-K, said last week. “That can’t happen now.”

But Monday morning, some parents said they were relieved to finally have their toddlers in school.

Tiyanna Jackson, who took her daughter, Zuri, to the Learning Through Play Pre-K Center in Mott Haven in the Bronx on Monday, said that after schools shut down in the spring, she had to give up her job at Amazon to watch her young daughter.

“Since I’ve had her with me every day, I haven’t been able to work,” Jackson said.

“I’m hoping as time goes by, this school starts going back to full time and everything can start getting back to normal,” she added. “I need to get back to work. I trust that the schools can stay clean and stay safe.”

Over the summer, New York City seemed poised to become the only big-school district in America to offer in-person classes at the start of its school year. Despite recent stumbles, New York will eventually have more students back in classrooms this month than any of the nation’s 10 largest school systems — if all goes according to plan.

So far, it has not.

Last week, just three days before schools were scheduled to physically reopen, de Blasio announced that he would delay the return to classrooms for most students, citing a severe staffing shortage that was created by the city’s attempt to have separate teachers for remote and in-person learning.

The new plan is for a staggered reopening; elementary school students will start in-person classes Sept. 29, and middle and high school children can return Oct. 1, about three weeks after schools were originally slated to reopen. That initial scheduled opening had been delayed after the city’s powerful teachers’ union threatened an illegal strike out of safety concerns.

As a result of the two delays, city students have now lost about 10 days of remote learning, although schools held three days of virtual orientation sessions last week.

De Blasio has stressed that he is intent on reopening schools to ensure an adequate educational experience for city students, the majority of whom are Black or Latino and low-income.

“If what we wanted to do was the simple, easy thing, we all would have said, ‘Hey, let’s go all remote,’” the mayor said during a recent news conference. “And we know we’ll be cheating kids and cheating families. And we know we will be, once again, ignoring the facts that in-person learning is so much better for kids.”

But scores of city parents, including many working families, said they preferred remote learning for now, citing safety concerns and the need for consistency when making child care arrangements that would allow them to return to work. Over 40% of families have already opted their children out of in-person classes entirely through at least November, with nonwhite parents opting out at higher rates than white parents, and that number is expected to rise when new data is released Monday.

Still, the reopening of some classrooms is an achievement for a city that was a global epicenter of the virus just six months ago. New York now has one of the lowest virus transmission rates of any city in the country, around or below 1%, and is one of the few big cities that can even consider physically reopening schools during the pandemic.

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